Without hope, we all could easily succumb to the darkness brought by life's challenges. BethAnn Telford has clung on to the power of this word in her life. After being diagnosed with brain cancer, it was hope that pushed her to get through this big hurdle and kept her going to whatever lies ahead. Now, as a survivor, BethAnn is determined to get her life back as an athlete, but this time, also as a motivational speaker and fundraiser dedicated to raising awareness of brain cancer and finding a cure. In this episode, she sits down with host Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst to share her inspiring story and the journey that took her from one marathon to another, bouncing back from that challenging moment in her life. BethAnn then gives some tips for those who are also having a difficult time in their life to help them fight mentally against it. Full of passion and inspiration, BethAnn shows that no obstacle is impossible to overcome with the right people, purpose, and ability to believe in oneself. Don't miss out on today's show to know more about how BethAnn is bringing hope and brain cancer awareness to the world.
Listen to the podcast here:
Taking Brain Cancer Awareness To Marathons And The World With BethAnn Telford
I have a great guest who I had the pleasure of being at Kona with in 2012 and continue to be a friend with even now because she is an inspiration. She's a triathlete, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser and somebody who you need to know more about. BethAnn Telford, how are you doing?
I'm doing great, Rob. It is a pleasure to be with you. I follow you and all the others that were on our great expedition to Kona in 2012 via virtual outlets. It's great to talk to you. I know that we have over several times, but what a pleasure it was meeting you back there several years ago. I'm happy to do this with you.
It's crazy to think it's that long ago, but it was. You continued to challenge life and we're going to get into your story. One of the things I always love and I always watched that Kona video. I see you carrying that flag with hope on it. Tell me more about what that word hope means to you.
When I was diagnosed back in 2005, I was dedicated to my job 24/7. I worked for the government. I still work for the federal government. When I was young, I wanted to go hell's bells as I do with athletic endeavors. I was going into the office at 6:00 and not coming home until 10:00 or 11:00. I worked for a cabinet member at the time. I never thought about charities or someone that was sick. I was healthy. My family was healthy. My friends were healthy and active. When I was diagnosed in 2005, it was like this wall was in front of me. I was desperate. I was looking for people, inspiration, and a word that would carry me through this long journey that I've been dealing with for many years.
You have all these different people giving you thoughts and everything. My father started this whole thing with hope. When I had my surgery, he said, “There's hope for this. We can get through this. It stuck to the point where I had it tattooed on my left wrist in the inside of it. When I was running or doing events or even at work, I could look down and know that the word hope to me is that there's a future. There are things that lie ahead. There might be hurdles, but you're going to get through them. It's going to be not back to normal, but it's going to be okay. That's why my word hope sticks with me. It probably started with my father. He's my biggest hero and the person that has made me who I am now.
You talk about your diagnosis and I want to go back to that. In 2004, you're running the Marine Corps Marathon. You said you felt a popping sensation in your head at Mile 19. You were an active person before this. What happened after that?
I played field hockey in high school and then got a scholarship for college. For field hockey, you only had to run a mile to get you qualified for the team. I made that but I never did distance running. When I moved down here after 9/11 to DC, you're out on the river, the Potomac, and all the monuments. It was continuous people running, walking, biking, physically exercising, and getting out. I was like, “I’ve got to join a running group.” I did. I joined a group that was for the foundation of AIDS at that time. We were training for the Marine Corps Marathon. That's how it all started. I started doing distance running down here in DC. I trained. I did several Marine Corps Marathons prior to this one in 2004.
At that time, Mile 19 was on Hains Point. Hains Point is the little island that sticks out in the Potomac that is the barrier for DC to Virginia or Old Town, Alexandria-Rosslyn area. At that time, it was Mile 19 and I felt a pop almost like I was going on an airplane. You know how you have to clear your ears or you've gone up and it gets foggy. I did, but my running gait was off. I was swerving left and right and all over. I was hitting people and almost like I was drunk. I composed myself and I finished. I got to mile 26.2. It was a seven-more-mile trek, but I considerably slowed down. My vision was messed up. I got across the finish line and immediately went to the medical tent and something was wrong. I thought it was dehydration. It was one of the hottest days that the Marine Corps Marathon had.
That’s where my story all started. When I felt that pop in my head, Rob, back at Mile 19, I looked up and to this day, many years later, and all these Marine Corps Marathons later, every time I stopped there, my friend stopped there. There is a sign there about me that people put up during the race. It's like this little shrine of like, “This is not going to get me, I'm coming back and I'm going to get you.” It's Mile 13 on the Marine Corps Marathon. The course has changed over the years, but that marathon is my VIP marathon.
You've made your name there. After that happened, you had that normal lifestyle like you were talking about and you went in and found out that you had a brain tumor.
What had happened is I thought I was dehydrated. I went to the medical tent at the Marine Corps. I tried to get some life back in me with the saline solution. I went to work the next day. Marine Corps Marathon is always the last Sunday in October. I was used to going to work the next day after doing several marathons. I worked for a high-level federal employee and I was his assistant. I kept his calendar. I did personal things for him to make sure he was on time, lunch dates, meetings, and hooking him up with other people according to his schedule. That Monday through Wednesday, I was a mess like I had started the job.
On top of that, my left eye was having trouble with sight. It was straying so I was running into this old furniture that had been there for 30, 40 years. I’m missing telephone calls for him. The meetings were wrong. I got on the Metro to go home instead of going to Northern Virginia, I ended up on the other side of Maryland. Things were not right. By that Wednesday, my boss had pulled me into his office and he says, “Is there something wrong with you? Are you drinking?” I'm like, “No.” I told him earlier about what happened at the Marine Corps. I went into the hospital and he had directed me to get a physical. I went to GW there. At that time, I was still being seen by my doctor back home from Pennsylvania.
I was being seen by my doctor at Hershey Medical, but because of the urgency, I was sent to GW. I went there and they diagnosed me with an inner ear infection. They collaborated with my doctor, Dr. Thomas Wyda, who is a sports doctor at the University of Alabama. He said, “That's not right.” He's been seeing me since I was a toddler. He said, “Something is not right. I am putting in a prescription for an MRI there.” I went and got an MRI right away. The results came in. I had a major left frontal lobe brain tumor. That's when my life changed.
I can imagine at that point you had all these things that were ahead of you that you thought of and now it's a different direction. One of my favorite stories, when you started to begin to learn how to walk again at the hospital, you made a circuit to be able to try to beat your friends and family. Tell me more about this.
My father is my biggest coach and hero. When I say coach, he doesn't know anything about triathlons. When I went to buy my bike, he was like, “Where's the kickstand? You're paying how much for a time.” When I say coach, just life skills and he always pushed me past my boundaries. In the hospital, when they weren't even sure what was going to happen after surgery, I lost the sight of my left eye and I lost the ability to have children. When you say there were things ahead of me, yes, I wanted to have children so bad. I was afraid to swing my legs over the side of the bed to start to walk. I wasn't sure with my sight, my balance because that's a huge issue. My father said to me, “I am going to try to race you around the intensive care.” He made a path and we did it. He pushed me and pushed me, every limit there was. People would cheer us on. I had my friends that came in that were athletes. They would take me on these almost like therapy lap, run, walks, types of things to see if I could get myself going. That was my first time learning to walk again.
The best part is that I know you well, but anybody who's reading has a slight glimpse into what you started to do after that. You didn't stop at racing people around the hospital ward once you got done. Was it a month after your surgery that you entered your first 5K brain surgery?
I had surgery back in April of 2005 and I stayed in the hospital for some time. Instead of coming back to DC, I went home to Pennsylvania so I could be looked after by my parents and my sisters. It's quieter there. It's a country. There was a 5K in our hometown. When my sister said, “Let's do it, the whole family.” My dad said, “I'll go to the halfway mark.” I have two older sisters. My mother and I were at the start line. Family, friends were there and the community that knew me. It was in the area of my home. My mother and sister said to me, “Now you will not run. You will walk this.”
I was like, “Yes, sure.” The gun went off and all the good runners went and I was feeling down for myself. I got to the halfway mark. You have to remember I have no hair. My head's wrapped. I got a patch on my eye. At the halfway mark, I hear my dad. I couldn't see him, but I know his voice. It's like, “Get going, Beth. Pick it up. Come on.” It took me back to the days of field hockey when parents could scream, yell, swear, whatever on the sidelines. My dad even had a blow horn. That moment that I heard my dad, that is the moment I knew I was going to be okay. I picked up my pace. I left my sisters and mom, I ran towards the voice of my father. I finished that 5K not walking but running. When I say running, it's not the pace that I was used to, but I had one foot in front of the other and I was doing the best I could. It was slow, but it was because of my father.
Is it the pace of progress towards something better?
That's a great way to say that.
When you look at the situation that you went through, a lot of the people that read this blog want to find out the inner workings of how did you mentally get from point A of being diagnosed to point B of going, “I'm to get my life back to what I want it to be.” What would you say the three tips would be for those people?
Surround yourself with great friends and family. My whole thing is I don't like to be around negative people that are like, “You're sick, you should stay at home.” I heard that when I went to Ironman. That's the worst thing you could do. You're going to kill yourself. Number two is I have a great team of doctors to the point where I have personal emails and numbers. I don't call them up and say, “I stubbed my toe.” For reasons, I have their numbers because I have such a great rapport with them. Lastly, you have to believe in yourself. If you can't believe in yourself, you're not going to get far in life or get over those obstacles that you have. I believe those three things are what truly have gotten me to the point where I am now as far as these incredible things, I've been able to do the job I've been able to keep and the great people that I go out and train with or have conversations with.
You didn't just go 5Ks and stuff like that. You weren't content with doing that. How many Boston marathons have you finished?
I have a finished qualified and finish because someone might think I did it for charity, which is great.
You could do it whenever you want. It is fine with me. If they complained, send them to me.
I qualified and finished six marathons. It would have been seven. Thank God it wasn't because I missed the year of the bombing. My bib was there. My friend picked up my bib. They thought I was at the starting line. The bombing happened and it would have been at the timing that I would have probably come to the finish line. It was crazy, but I had been in the hospital for emergency bladder replacement. Would I have rather been at the bombing or have the bladder surgery? It’s the bladder surgery.
Not that many Boston marathons, how many consecutive Marine Corps Marathons have you done?
I have done fifteen consecutively. I love men and women who serve our country. I love being able to run through DC with all the great monuments to many people. It's no prize money there. It's a great race and I love the race director.
I want to go to 2012. We were part of the same thing as Kona Inspired. I love it because, on the NBC coverage, you're right before I'm on there. It always makes me smile every time I see you flash that tattoo on your arm or your wrist of hope. Tell me what that day meant, not just for you, because you had somebody waiting at the finish line for you that you created an impact. I want to read a quote here before I let you tell me that. You said, “I fight for those who are unable, especially for children suffering from cancer, as there is a significant lack of funding for pediatric cancer.” Tell me what that day meant to you and what it meant to the individuals that you helped.
It was huge. It had to be by far, at that point, the biggest thing in my life that I had accomplished. I was lucky to have my parents there. I have my partner there. I meet the wonderful people that were in Kona Inspired. That's where you and I forged a wonderful relationship. Todd was there and we had a great group of people from the foundation, from other foundations. I met your girlfriend at that time who's now your wife. I had the opportunity to have someone fly over a pediatric brain tumor warrior of mine, who I call my bestie and her mother. It was huge. I had met this little girl through my father who was reading the newspaper back home. On the front page, this little girl was featured because of her brain cancer and her classmates at the Bible Baptist School were making hats for her because she had lost her hair. She was conscious of it.
My dad says, “You have to meet this girl.” The next time I was home, I met her. Her name is Anya. I call her my bestie. We formed a great relationship. I love every part of her. She's grown into a teenager now. It's hard to believe. She's had nine surgeries since I met her for her brain tumor. Each time she comes out, even more, thankful to anyone that she meets or helps. She is going to be the new mini-me. She might not be athletic, but she's taking over a lot of my speaking gigs. We do a lot of speaking gigs together. She was much younger at that time. To have her at the finish line, I knew that the whole time out there that what I was doing was for so many kids. When you read about that, the pediatric funding for an adult is like 42%. Rob, what do you think it is for a child for pediatric cancer in general?
I can only imagine it's half or even less than that.
It’s 7%. It's ridiculous. When I heard that from my doctor, Dr. Henry Brem, when I told you I wasn't able to have kids, I've adopted all these kids. I thought, “I have lived my life. I have been to the prom. I've driven a car. I've gotten speeding tickets. I've been grounded several times. I went to school, furthered my career in the federal government, serving our country. These kids might not get to do that.” I felt that that was going to be my platform. The whole time being out there in Kona, and that piece where you see me talking, there was a part where the guys followed me and they did that with you on the motorcycle. They're like, “What do you think?” I said, “I'm going to go back. I have enough time. I want to run another 10 miles.” They're like, “We are done with you.”
You know that feeling, you come around the corner to go up in front of the crowds, I was carrying so much weight on me. It all lifted off. I felt like everyone ran in front of me and it was their finish. When I came across the finish line, I went right to her. She was right there with her mom. I unfortunately swore. That’s the hardest thing I did. I covered my mouth and I was thinking, “This girl is a little religious girl and here I am saying this.” I was excited and to see her smile and wait for me all those hours. She had taken naps. Later on, I had seen all these pictures of her in the hotel floor room waiting for me. It was overwhelming. I felt like I’ve raised some good money. It was all worth it. I want to do it again and again.
You didn't even stop there because this is one of the things that I love about you is there's no finish line for you. It's just to keep going. You've raised over $1 million for research supported by the Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure. You have a team that people can go to, www.TeamBT.org. People can go there and find out more information. Tell me more about those seven days. I have thought of doing it, but I don't know if I'm as crazy as you are. In 2017, you did the World Marathon Challenge, which is seven continents, seven marathons in seven days.
Let's get something straight, it's seven consecutive days. This is where I've fooled my brain surgeon. When I had to get the clearance because Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure wanted to make sure I was medically able to do this, which is understandable. I said seven marathons, seven continents, seven days. Dr. Brem was like, “Let me think about this.” I never put consecutive in there. You do one a month or once every two months, whatever. I didn't say anything. I let him form his own opinion. This was brought to me again by one of my lovely friends who thought I should go out for this.
I thought, “This is awesome. It's a great platform.” Rob, I hope you do it. It would be good. Take Todd and film the whole thing. I thought to instill the feeling that I got when I passed over Kona, you can't express that enough. I thought that was it for me. I knew I would do other things, but nothing is epic. This came up and I was blown out of the water. Were there days that I thought I couldn't do it? No. I trained for a year. I felt great. I knew this platform would be a great way for me to raise money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer. It's seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. You start in Antarctica. You'll run a full marathon, but there's a special plane that takes you there that can land on the ice.
It's a Russian plane. The whole thing is starting there due to the fact of the weather. Only my luck when we started running a snow storm came in, but we finished it. We were packed before we even started the race of 26.2. When we finished some people that were faster, like my good friend, Michael Wardian was able to shower. Others that were stuck in the snowstorm and I was running through snow up to my knees. We're a little bit slower. We got caught in that. As soon as everyone was finished, we jumped back onto the plane. We went back to Chile where it all started, where we all met up.
From Chile onward, we had our private jet, which was nice because you had your designated area. I was lucky enough to have someone come along with me to do my media. They had given this person a reduced rate to get in with me. They captured everything and filmed it. She administered all my medicine because I'm on medicines for health issues. We get back to Chile and we get off this Russian plane. We unload our gear and we immediately run another 26.2 in Chile. When you're done, you only have so many hours to either get yourself ready and you get back on the plane. That's when we flew to Miami where I had a huge crowd. My parents were there. My friends were there and they ran with me. That was it. I was happy to see my parents.
I needed a little pep talk. It's not that I wasn't going to finish. I was missing people. Other than the lady that went with me, I had known her. Her niece has a brain tumor. It was all part of that she had come along and she's in marketing. After Miami, I finished and my dad said to me, “Can we get dinner?” The race director looked at my dad and said, “She's got to get into the van. We’ve got to get back to the airport. We're headed to Spain.” My dad was like, “Wait a minute.” I gave him a kiss and I left. We went to Spain. That was my fastest marathon. I like hills. It was a lot of up and downhills. The scenery, which we were in a park, reminded me of home so much.
From Chile, we finished 26.2 and we went on to Marrakesh. That was an interesting one. We got there and women aren't allowed to run there. We respected them and didn't wear short sleeves. It was hot. I kept long pants on, but a lady came up from the area. The only thing that we had in common was she had running shoes on. She had the full garb over her head and she ran with me. She wanted to run with the American woman. I was the only American woman. I was the second American woman to do this event, the first-ever with cancer, male, female.
I have some great pictures of running past camels. That was a touching moment when she ran with me and I got to ask her some questions. We got showered. We got some food and got back on the plane. We did a lot of eating on the plane. I didn't sleep much on the plane or anywhere else. My adrenaline was flowing. That was number four. Five was Dubai. That's number six. Dubai was by far the hardest. Antarctica was hard, but Dubai because it was 112 degrees. My tumor doesn't like that. I was so hot. My head was thumping. We all worked together, every participant. We had great people. On the whole 22 of us, only 20 of us ended up finishing, but we assisted each other by giving each other ice bags, rags.
That was hard for all of us, but I finished that. We had a long flight for the final destination, which was Australia. We went to Sydney and it was nighttime. We would run through the night, but we got there around 10:00 and we started running around midnight by the time we got from the airport to the destination. From the flight from Dubai to Sydney, Australia, the race director, Richard, talked to all of us. He said that there was a past participant who wanted to donate $5,000 to a man and $5,000 to a woman, who all of us that participated deemed the most sportsmanship of the adventure. We had to vote on each other and then give it to the race director confidentially. At the end of the Australia race, he would let us know.
We all did that. I'm running in Australia and it's midnight. We had headlamps and we were running along the beach. It was beautiful. At that race site, there was a gentleman there who had come and he had waited for me. We were supposed to be there at 9:00 and he waited until midnight when I got there. I didn't know much about him, but he came up to me and he says, “You see that structure up there on the hill.” It was like a cliff that overlooked the ocean that we were down on running by. He says, “My son died there a few months ago from a brain tumor. I heard about you and I'm out here to support you.” If that didn't motivate me to run, I finished that race. I wanted to keep running and run three more marathons because my heart felt for this guy. New Balance had donated fourteen pairs of shoes for me for seven countries.
Every half marathon, 13.1, I switched out my New Balance shoes. What we did before we left is we reached out to anyone with pediatric cancer, especially the brain to design their sneaker. We had it painted on the one sneaker and the other sneaker was the country that that child would be running with me. When I got to Australia, I looked down at my feet, at the finish line. I had the shoe that this pediatric kid had done on one side. This was my final pair. On the other side, the flag of Australia. I took off the left foot that had the flag of Australia and I gave it to him. It fit him. I'm a size eight women so he had a small foot. He was blown away and happy. When I came across that finish line, I wanted to keep going. Richard had said that I was voted by my peers for the $5,000 for the woman with the best sportsmanship on that race.
I had some competition, I'll tell you. There was a blind lady from Ireland, and she's awesome. She has done some incredible things. There was a lady from Italy that I admired. It’s all great. Mostly there was a lot of Asian people, and there are Germans. There were triathletes on this. It’s selected so that's why there was only me and Ryan Hall, who's famous. I got to forge a great relationship with him. Ryan Hall is known for his world record marathon time. He's an Olympic runner and I beat him in Australia. I use that once in a while when he posts something funny, I'll say, “Remember who beat you in Australia?”
BethAnn, you are a motivational person, an inspirational person. I'm going to end this one with how we always end it. We have three questions that we ask people, and then we have rapid round questions. There’s no right or wrong answer. The first one is, what is one thing that you haven't done, but is outside of your comfort zone?
That is a tough one because I have no fear.
Your comfort zone is not big. It’s large.
Let me come back to that one.
This next one, what's your favorite quote, and why?
It’s one my father instilled in me and it is “Never, never, never give up” by Winston Churchill. You never give up and you never give up hope and that is why.
This last one, you can't pass on this one. If you could pick to have coffee with three other people at a firehouse coffee table, in other words, nothing is off the table. You can talk about anything and everything. Who would it be and why? They can be deceased or alive.
It’s probably Andrea Bocelli because he's amazing. I enjoy his music, although I don't listen to it while I'm running, he's amazing with his adversity and overcoming a lot of different issues. This is another person I have to say, who's up there is Tatyana McFadden. She is a famous wheelchair athlete. She was adopted out of a Russian orphanage. She's got a great story. They're different perspectives, but Tatyana is incredible. I have the opportunity to meet her, but not sit and discuss her adversity either.
This would be that opportunity. Who else?
I don't want to get political, but Ronald Reagan. There’s something about him I like. He went from one extreme of being an actor to running our country. It’s such a difficult job and you can never do it right. It's like a weather forecaster. The way he went out of this world was very sad. I'm seeing that with my father. I would go back in time and ask him questions of how he thought he was going to go out of this world. It’s not the way he did.
Those are some good picks right there. We have to go back to question one here. What is the one thing you haven't done, but is outside of your comfort zone?
The backpacking through Spain, I know it sounds very easy, but what does that long trail that the monks take? I'm not coming across it, but it is long. It goes through Italy, Spain, Monte Picchu, I think it's called. If I had to do that alone, I would freak out because I do not like to be alone. That's my biggest problem. It's been ever since I had the surgery and it's the fear of having a seizure because I do seizure and not anyone finding me, that will be out of my comfort zone. It’s like doing an event where it's one person and it's you in the wild. Not that I wouldn't do well because I ran across the Grand Canyons, but I had five people with me and supporting me.
You've reached the rapid round questions. I'm going to give you two options. You choose one of them. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald’s or Taco Bell?
McDonald's, I love their fries.
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleeping late or wake up early?
I'm an early person, 4:00 AM.
Run or walk?
Partly sunny or cloudy?
Either because they're both great days.
Fire or water?
Use a porta-potty or continue to drive and run to the next physical bathroom?
A porta-potty or nature. Come on, we’re triathletes.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
BethAnn, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. You are such an inspiration. Anybody that wants to find out more can go to TeamBT.org to find out more about the next adventures and the way that you can support them. Thank you for joining us.
You’re welcome. What a great way to talk with you and get this out to everyone. It’s been a pleasure, Rob.
Thank you for joining us and we will talk to you soon.